The political spin machines went into high gear Wednesday with the publication of the report from the Iraq Survey Group on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The group's finding that Saddam Hussein did not have a functional program for the production of weapons of mass destruction, nor any known stockpiles of the same, was treated as big news. In the context of a heated election campaign, the news was played as a devastating blow to President Bush's case for the war in Iraq.
But this represents a serious distortion. There is news in the report, to be sure, but it lies in the detailed disclosure and documentation of how far France, Russia, and China had benefited from the United Nation's corrupt Oil-for-Food program. These, of course, were the three countries most supportive of Iraq on the U.N. Security Council. That's what the headlines should have been all about.
The Survey Group, headed by chief U.S. weapons inspector Charles A. Duelfer, only confirmed what weapons inspector David Kay had previously stated before Congress at the interim publication of the report: that Saddam Hussein did not at the time of the invasion have a major program for the production of weapons of mass destruction. If this is news, it is only because of the countdown to the presidential election.
What has been played down in the news coverage-but shouldn't be, as it is of crucial importance-is that Saddam retained the capacity and the intent to restart his production of WMDs once the U.N. sanctions regime had finally crumbled. In this he was clearly in breach of U.N. resolution 1441. The Iraqi Intelligence Service maintained a set of undeclared laboratories to research and test chemical and biological weapons, including through human tests. He had the capacity to produce, within six months, sulfur mustard and, within two years, nerve agents. The Survey Group also concluded that Saddam still had dreams of acquiring nuclear weapons and that he intended to resume his missile programs, potentially for the delivery of WMD.
Amazingly, opponents of the war always seem to assume that had we not invaded Iraq, Saddam would have been content with the status quo, sitting in his box, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright liked to put it. But that would have been totally out of character. This is the Iraqi dictator who started wars against Iran and Kuwait, threatened Saudi Arabia, and constantly tested the U.S. and British fighter planes that were enforcing the no-fly zones over Iraq. Nor let us forget that he gassed his own Kurdish citizenry. Saddam was as restless as he was ruthless.
Nor were the U.N. sanctions doing the job of denying him weapons. Throughout the 1990s, Saddam was able to amass an estimated $11 billion in revenue outside U.N.- approved methods. Furthermore, as has been amply documented in the work of Heritage analysts Nile Gardiner and James Phillips, the U.N. Oil-for-Food program was fraudulent and horribly corrupt in itself.
As confirmed in the Duelfer report, Saddam bought support, particularly among French, Russian, and Chinese officials to whom he would donate oil "vouchers" that could be resold for large profits. One recipient was Benon Sevan, former U.N. officials in charge of humanitarian relief and the Oil-for-Food program itself. The scandal has gone all the way to the top, to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's son. Needless to say, the countries that benefited most from these vouchers were also the countries that were most adamantly opposed to the Iraq invasion.
Those who criticize the actions taken by President Bush and his team should answer the question what they would have done in the face of the outrageous bluff attempted by Saddam Hussein. He deliberately tried to make the world believe he had WMD, harassing U.N. inspectors and destroying monitoring equipment, and he succeeded. President Bush had every reason not to take a chance that could leave the American people exposed to the dangers of an Iraq armed with WMD. In the post-9/11 world, the stakes in the game Saddam was playing were simply too high.
Helle Dale is is Director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.